Giving Kabul a leg up

The announcement came after months of deliberation over General Stanley McChrystal’s request for additional troops, which brought to the fore tensions between the military and the Obama Administration’s civilian leadership. In what was his second major review of the war in Afghanistan since taking office, President Barack Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops—virtually a tripling of US military footprint in Afghanistan—and a phased withdrawal of forces, commencing in 18 months. US troops will be supplemented by about 7,000 additional troops from countries contributing to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

Equally, away from the media glare, James L Jones, Mr Obama’s national security advisor, conveyed to Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari Washington’s intention to use more force in Pakistan, if Islamabad and Rawalpindi did not act more aggressively against Taliban militants in the country. Indeed, part of the new Afghanistan strategy includes increasing US drone assaults in Waziristan and expanding them to include Baluchistan, where Mullah Muhammed Omar and the Taliban’s Quetta Shura are widely believed to be based.

Another key aspect of the Obama administration’s review includes efforts to increase the role of regional and global powers in Afghanistan. Richard Holbrooke, the administration’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, has visited China, Russia and Western Europe more often in the recent past than the countries he is directly assigned to. While part of the reason for his absence from the region may be due to the fact that a ear sympathetic to Mr Holbrooke is becoming a rarity in South Asia, it is also possible that his role has been refined to promote Mr Obama’s vision for deeper multinational engagement on Afghanistan in the immediate neighbourhood and beyond. The multinational engagement approach resonates well, not only with the United States, but also with other countries in the region.

The joint communique of the Russia-India-China (RIC) foreign minister’s meeting, held in Bangalore in October, was a strong indicator of the intent of powers in Afghanistan’s immediate region. Although a consensus did not evolve, a broad endorsement of increasing international involvement was made via the communique, which read, “[t]he Ministers emphasised the necessity of the international community maintaining its commitment to render assistance…. in ensuring security and development, and restoring peace and stability and building a democratic, pluralistic and prosperous Afghanistan.“

The importance of Afghanistan’s security situation to the region in general and India specifically cannot be over-emphasised, particularly in view of the objectives of Mr Obama’s “surge and withdraw” strategy. The Obama administration sees this war as one that it was burdened with, and consequently, is focused on extricating itself from the situation, while ensuring that some semblance of government apparatus remains functional in Afghanistan.  But it would be unrealistic to expect the Afghanistan National Army (ANA) to pick up from where the United States left off, defend the country and deter the Taliban from expanding its influence, beginning 18 months from now. Today, only about 40 percent of ANA units are capable of conducting operations with US/ISAF support.  By President Hamid Karzai’s own admission, it would take another five years before the ANA can take over from foreign forces, and that too, only if training of ANA forces is accelerated.

A security vacuum in Afghanistan will be disastrous for the stability of Afghanistan and the region beyond. India’s investments (totalling over $1.5 billion) and considerable allocation of manpower and resources in Afghanistan make such a situation even more unacceptable.  India’s role in reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan—from the Zaranj-Delaram highway to the Salma Dam power project in Herat province—have been lauded by the international community. In addition, India has also trained Afghan civil servants, diplomats and police, and has provided support in vital areas such as heath care, education and telecommunications.

“Soft power,” some people call this. By any measure, soft power is an important attribute in overall power projection. But exclusive soft power is only credible as long as other actors in Afghanistan are willing and able to do the “dirty yard work”. The winding down of US combat forces in Afghanistan beginning in 2011 coupled with the likely prospect of an undertrained and poorly motivated ANA attempting to hold fort will leave a void that India’s soft power alone cannot fill. This has a significant and direct impact on India’s internal security. As a regional power, India ought to do more in Afghanistan.

In a policy brief entitled “Afghanistan 2011: Three Scenarios”, the Center for a New American Security, a Washington, DC think-tank, presented what it felt were the best-case, worst-case and most-likely-case scenarios for Afghanistan in 2011. The most likely scenario—taking into consideration the withdrawal of major combat forces in 18 months—in Afghanistan was a proxy war between the United States (backing the Kabul government and affiliated warlords) and Pakistan’s intelligence community and military (backing the “disenfranchised Pashtun community”, represented by the Quetta Shura Taliban and the Haqqani Network). The worst-case scenario involved a relatively quick defeat of the Kabul government, following withdrawal of major foreign forces, and the re-emergence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, providing the base for transnational terror groups.

Steve Coll, veteran journalist and president of the New America Foundation, paints a grim picture of the consequences to Afghanistan and the region of such a “worst-case scenario” coming to fruition. Among possible scenarios, he highlights a return to a 1990s-style proxy war in Afghanistan, between a “legitimate” government in Kabul dominated by Uzbeks and Tajiks, supported and financed by Iran, India, Russia and the West, and the Taliban.  Mr Coll warns that the knock-on effect of such a catastrophe would be irregular attacks in India by Pakistan-based terrorist groups, which would gain momentum from a Taliban redux in Afghanistan.

There may have been a time, during the Bush administration, when an Indian offer to engage militarily in Afghanistan might have garnered US and NATO support. However, India, instead, chose to focus on the (noble) pursuits rebuilding the war-ravaged nation.  Perhaps both the NDA and the UPA governments in New Delhi imprudently placed their bets on a quick, decisive US military campaign where the Taliban would be ousted and a credible government put in its place, with a more or less manageable, if chaotic, law and order situation. It would, however, be difficult to imagine the Obama administration looking favourably upon such an offer from India, even as domestic pressure compels it to wind down major operations in Afghanistan.

However, the deployment of combat troops need not necessarily be the be-all-end-all of enhanced military co-operation with Afghanistan. Indeed, a very real opportunity exists today, given the timeline for withdrawal of US combat forces, for India to engage with Afghanistan in a more meaningful way than before. The 30,000 additional troops the US will send to Afghanistan, tasked with both counterinsurgency (COIN)/counter-terrorism (CT) operations and training, will undoubtedly be stretched too thin to meet either objective effectively. The ANA already suffers from a chronic shortage of trainers. The answer to the United States’ resource constraints in Afghanistan lies in India. India must respond positively to a US request on training and equipping the ANA.

The Obama administration is reported to have broached the topic with New Delhi. Clearly,  it is no more an ideal situation for the US to enlist Indian military support in Afghanistan than it is for India, as per the thinking of the government, to offer such support. However, we live in times where we do not possess the luxury of choice on matters of such criticality. Much of Washington’s own reluctance today is due to the fears of Pakistan—its critical ‘ally’ in the war—of being encircled by India. But India’s progression as a regional and rising global player cannot be held hostage to the neuralgia of a Pakistani state that is teetering at the edge of the abyss. Some sections of the Obama administration seem to be recognising this. For India, the reluctance is just as much a factor of public opinion as it is the government’s desire not to be seen “throwing its weight around.” The reluctance not to get involved in Afghanistan, while perhaps fine today, will unquestionably have a more direct and profound impact on India’s own internal security more than that of any other country’s. Also, all the prognostications of India as a regional and rising global power will receive a strong jolt if New Delhi cannot project itself militarily beyond its own borders on a matter of a direct threat to national security.

There are several opportunities for India to engage with Afghanistan militarily. Some Afghan defence personnel are already receiving training at the National Defence Academy, Khadakwasla. In addition, Indian instructors provide English training to Afghan military personnel in Afghanistan. The ANA is a rapidly expanding force, with NATO’s October 2010 goal calling for a strength of 134,000 troops, which will be the highest troop strength in the country since 1979. However, the ANA faces several challenges, chief among them being high desertion rates (as high as 25 percent according to some sources), low morale and inadequate training. Together this presents the picture of a force that may reach its October 2010 goals in terms of manpower, but would certainly not be in a position to fill the void left by withdrawing US forces.

At the least, India must offer to train ANA military personnel through programmes in both Afghanistan and India. India has several COIN schools such as the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) and specialised training centres like the High-Altitude Warfare School (HAWS) in Jammu and Kashmir. The CIJWS already draws international participation of military personnel from the United States, United Kingdom and other Central Asian states. Further assistance can be provided by augmenting logistics and communications infrastructure to aid the ANA and providing essential military supplies to the country. India can also assist in augmenting ANA’s air defence capabilities. Training can be provided to ANA Air Corps’ pilots; specific requests for training on Mi-35 helicopters (the air corps operates a handful) have previously been made. Indeed, further opportunities for Indian assistance exist even in the medium to long run, as the ANA Air Corps seeks to induct light multi-role attack/air superiority jets by 2015.

Ultimately, it is in India’s national interest to ensure that there is a well-trained and well-equipped defence force in Afghanistan capable of gradually taking over combat operations from the United States and ISAF troops over the course of the next few years. The decision to offer training assistance to Afghanistan will have a direct impact on India’s own internal security and on its standing in a rapidly changing world.  The status of “regional power”is not achieved through birth right—it has to be earned. It is time for India to play a meaningful role in the security of South Asia.

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